Follow that car! How drama reveals the inner story

by Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

Six mornings a week, my dad commuted to his drugstore in North Philadelphia. By closing time, he had been there for almost 14 hours, but I never heard him complain. He enjoyed his work, and it may never have occurred to him that there was anything to complain about. When I was in high school, I started working with my dad at the store. Every Friday afternoon I took the subway, and on Saturday afternoon drove with my mom. My job was stocking shelves, serving customers, occasionally counting pills to help fill prescriptions, and eating lots of candy bars. Sometimes mom packed dinner, and sometimes I walked down to the Horn and Hardarts cafeteria at Broad and Erie and brought back a hot meal to eat at the store. By the end of the day, we were all ready to go home. Around 9:30 I mopped the floor, then descended rickety stairs to check the cellar door. Finally we positioned bars across the windows, set the alarm, and went outside.

One Saturday, we drove south on 17th Street, turned left on to Ontario, and started east towards Broad Street, when a large man ran out between two cars and flagged us down. He knocked on the window, yelling at us to open up, gesturing down the street towards some unseen quarry. It was a cop, fiddling with his holster, preparing to draw his gun. As my mother reached over her shoulder to unlock the door, the strangest thing happened. Her hands grabbed wildly at the latch as if she was pulling up, but time after time her fingers missed and the door remained locked. I watched in growing horror as precious time slipped away.

This is exactly what always bothered me about my mother, and here was yet another proof. She was a klutz, and just in the most urgent moment, she failed to come through. I cursed the luck that gave me such an incompetent mother. Losing patience, the cop ran to a taxi that pulled up behind us. The driver of that vehicle knew how to open his door. The cop jumped in and they pulled around us and drove off in pursuit. Meanwhile, I was filled with wonder at how my mother who had been opening car doors her whole life could have failed at such a simple task, and fumed the whole way home.

At first glance, such intense moments appear to be excellent material for a memoir. Jeanette Walls’ wildly successful memoir, “Glass Castle,” seems like a collection of such experiences. But taken as a whole, her book is more than a compilation of zany moments. Each episode contributes to an intimate, compassionate portrayal of real human beings. Memories are simply the raw material for memoirs, like pigments for a painter or clay for a sculptor, and shaping them into the story is not an exhaustive collection but an artistic synthesis. So no matter how many high powered incidents come to mind, I still don’t necessarily end up with a readable book that authentically portrays my life. To turn anecdotes into a life story, there is much creative work to do.

For one thing, I must place the experience in context. We didn’t just appear on that street. We arrived there through the natural course of our daily lives. So I back up and explain what we were doing there in the first place. That episode with the cop makes the whole night come to life — the drugstore, the neighborhood, and my relationship with my parents. As this anecdote falls onto paper, I begin to see the world of that teenage boy, broadening my insight into the night and also expanding my understanding of how it fit into my whole life.

For example, I’m not very well coordinated myself, and during my teenage years I was especially disappointed by my lack of agility. Feeling my frustration with my mom that night awakens the recognition that neither of my parents nor any of us three kids were athletic. I have recently been reading about hereditary factors that cluster together the characteristics of nerdiness and lack of physical coordination. (see my Asperger’s article). The incident with the car lock suggests that this might help explain the Waxler family. I file that observation for future consideration.

The incident stirs up an observation about my relationship with my dad. He was a loving man, and always treated me with kindness and respect, but we never talked much. I don’t remember having had a single conversation with him, which made him seem distant. Now that I am reading about us as two characters in a story, a fact jumps out. Working in the drugstore with my father, gave me an opportunity to spend large swaths of time shoulder to shoulder with him, helping him in the store that supported the family. Now I realize we were partners, in a manly sort of way. I’ve envied other boys who worked with their dad on the farm or the family business, and now I realized until I was 18, I was one of those boys.

The fact that we had to put bars on the window and set the alarm, and that a cop was running around chasing criminals, foreshadows the fact that a few years later, corner drugstores would become targets for violent crime. When I went away to college, dad’s good friend, Sam Dreidink, who owned a drugstore a few miles away, was held up at gunpoint. On the way out, the robbery completed, his assailant shot Sam in the stomach. He lived, but in terrific pain for the rest of his life. A few months later, my dad was held up. During the robbery, he was forced to his knees with a shotgun pointed at his head. They stole his money and whatever narcotics he had in stock. When they left, he was still whole in body, but that incident ended his years in the drugstore.

My mom lived 70 more years, during which I discovered her apparent lapses in “common sense” often moved conversations in unexpected directions, offering the people in her life zest and interest, cleverness and fun. Her lack of predictability turned out to be one of her endearing traits, and instead of feeling manipulated or confused by her approach, I became one of her many admirers. Forty years after that night in the car, I knew that behind a thin facade of silliness, she was an authentic, fascinating person. Which makes me wonder as I read my story if she knew exactly what she was doing, and in her own klutzy way she was protecting her family from a man with a gun.

Writing Prompt: Write an anecdote from your life that has dramatic intensity. Using that anecdote as a core, backtrack and describe what lead up to it. Also, go forward and see what happens afterward. Try it a few times, or with a few anecdotes, to see if you can find a beginning, middle, and end. Could this be a chapter in your memoir? Could it become a standalone short story?

To listen to the podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

Writing Prompt
Take one of your written dramatic anecdotes. You now have three different points of view about the same event. One is the memory of what it felt to be back there. Another is a reader, reading a written story about characters in the incident. The third is an adult, with a much broader understanding not only of the incident but who the people are, where they’ve been, and where they are going. Dance amidst these three points of view find new thoughts and connections that help put it in place. Consider what the people wanted. What were they thinking when they performed this particular action? What other episode does this story remind you of? How did your or their flaws influence the course of events? How have you or they changed since then?

Relive your memoir by acting: Pursuit of Happyness

 by Jerry Waxler

I found insight into the power of memoirs from a surprising source, the movie Pursuit of Happyness. The movie is based on a true story about Chris Gardner, down on his luck in San Francisco in 1981. Gardner, played by superstar Will Smith, is working at a dead end sales job that has left him unable to pay his rent. Gardner, a single father, struggles to stop the downward slide into homelessness. Despite his effort, he continues to fall, sleeping on trains, in bathrooms, and shelters. And through a tenacity that is almost incomprehensible in its ferocity, he keeps his wits and determination, striving to provide for himself and his son.

Then he gets a break. He is accepted as a stockbroker trainee at a major financial firm, Dean Witter. But it’s not over yet. He must prove himself before he can get the job. He grips this first rung on the ladder while circumstances continue to pull him down into the abyss. To earn enough money to live, after a full day at Dean Witter he goes out to ply his other sales job, selling diagnostic equipment to doctors. Then he retrieves his kid from daycare, and starts the nightly search for a place to sleep. In the end his tenacity pays off. He is accepted as a stockbroker. It’s based on a true story, and the real man went on to become a millionaire and a social activist.

In the bonus material at the end of the DVD, there is an interview with Chris Gardner that turns this from a good movie into a fascinating exploration of a memoir. When they started filming a movie of his life, the producers asked Gardner, who by this time was a wealthy man, if he would he be able to handle the emotional turmoil of revisiting this humiliating, dark period in his life. He was willing to try, placing himself in an unusual position of watching Hollywood specialists reenact his circumstances. For example, they recreated the day care center where he had to drop off his boy, and designed a set to mimic the station bathroom where he slept when there was no room at the homeless shelter. Through the process Gardner saw his life acted out.

As you organize your thoughts about your own memoir, consider the power of reenactment. You can gain many of the benefits Gardner got, without having a multi-million dollar Hollywood production team. A much more modest effort to act out your past can provide you with surprising insights.

While I don’t have acting or drama experience myself, I have experienced the power of reenactment in a type of therapy group called psychodrama. In this method, without formal props or acting training, the psychodrama leader directs the group through a reenactment. The actors are selected from your fellow group members. As each actor comments on how the drama feels from their own point of view, you find yourself revisiting important scenes in your life, this time accompanied by concerned participants and observers.

If you don’t have access to a psychodrama group, you can achieve insights with a few friends. Organize the scene, and play out the various roles. I’m not talking about stage acting here. No one is going to pay to see it. It’s like a primitive sketch that helps you see things in a new light. You can even do it alone. Imagine the scene yourself, put yourself in each character’s shoes and see what you would say.

Consider this example. I try to remember a scene with my brother. We’re in the basement. He is studying and I am soldering a transistor, helping him build a hi-fi kit. The room is dark, except for the lamps each of us is working under. He is building the hi-fi because he’s moving away to go to Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut, which would make him 17 and me 10. I don’t remember the conversation, so I pretend. I say, “Ed, I enjoy helping you. I’m going to miss you.” Now I ask a friend to pretend to be Ed, but the friend doesn’t know what to say. So we switch places. My friend, now playing me, says, “Ed, I enjoy helping you.” Now that I’m sitting in Ed’s chair, I imagine what he would say. I struggle but don’t say anything. As Ed, I’m preoccupied with studying, and nervous and excited about going away. Sitting in his chair helped me understand how he felt. We’re boys. Of course we don’t talk about feelings. Now I’m me again. I feel lonely. I’m glad he’s letting me help him with the soldering.

So what feelings did Chris Gardner report about making a movie of his life? Here’s what he says in the interview at the end of the DVD. “I didn’t know if I was ready for it. But this whole process, this entire production helped me tremendously, by helping me to create, if you will, new memories of San Francisco, instead of the film I had been running in my mind for the last 23 years. It’s part of letting go. It’s been a beautiful experience in that regard.” By revisiting the past, he has relieved some of its pain.

There is a powerful symbolic gesture at the very end of the movie that evokes the mysterious journey through time. Actor Will Smith walks along the street, ready to embark on his new life. Across his path walks the actual man Chris Gardner, successful, and now famous. Smith turns around to look at the person he will become 23 years later.

Writing prompt: Pick a scene in your past that continues to hold mystery and power. To help you write about it, think of it as a stage play, and you are the screenwriter and director. Write stage directions. And then try acting it, either exactly as it happened or improvise to create another way it might have happened.

Blubbering while performing his memoir

At the dramatic reading of Jerry Perna’s semi-autobiographical “Seven Men from Now” in West Philadelphia’s Rotunda the other night, Jerry Perna started blubbering as he was telling a story about his father’s last night on earth. The reading was filled with emotion about the author’s frustration with his father, and the pathos of losing him. In the story, the son had found a twenty dollar bill on the street, and wanted to find the owner. His father said, “Don’t look too far. Just be grateful you found it.” Then his father died. And the performer cried. Since the performer was also the author, it was easy to understand that he was remembering the emotions of that moment. And throwing himself into the moment and feeling it. That’s an actor’s trick.

And it’s not a bad trick for a writer. If you can feel what you’re writing, while you write it, there’s a good chance the reader will also feel those emotions. Of course, it takes practice. Just as Perna had years of acting experience to draw from when he performed these lines, over time a writer will bring years of experience to translate the real emotions from heart to paper.

Memoirs Start Last Night

by Jerry Waxler

You start making memories every day. Last night for example, I went to a dramatic reading in Philadelphia. Jerry Perna’s play was dramatically read by himself and several actors, as part of a joint effort to provide actors with opportunities to express their craft.

The reading was being produced for a live video feed through the New Century television station, located in Newtown. My friend Mike Shoeman introduced me to the CEO of New Century, Ariel Schwartz. Instead of asking him for his story, I pitched my idea to publicize memoir writers. I would have preferred learning more about him, but I observed something about myself. When I had two minutes with the CEO of a television station my tendency was to talk about myself. That’s a good observation to file for further reference. Perhaps I’ll be able to use it in my memoir.

Speaking of memoirs, before the show I asked Jerry Perna how much of his play was based on his life. He said, “About 99.9%” Then watching the show, I saw what he meant. It treated issues of growing up in the sixties and his character’s relationship with his father. Afterward, I asked him if writing and performing it was therapeutic, and he said it was “more therapeutic than therapy.”

So what does going to a play have to do with writing memoirs? Here are a few ways that last night informs the project of writing about life:

* Life is a series of memories, starting from last night. That’s why people try to capture their memories in diaries or blogs (like this one). Or photo albums of birthdays and vacations. It’s all grist for the memoir mill. Lesson: Record memories.

* The play took place near the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. When I was in Central High School in Philadelphia, I did a research paper about the Pullman Rebellion. It turns out that the governor of Illinois called in the national guard to break up a strike against the Pullman Railroad. To research that school paper, I took the subway and trolley down to the hallowed grounds of the University of Pennsylvania to pour through the card catalog and go to find a dusty, precious book in the stacks. Now, every time I walk on that campus I remember powerful feelings evoked from the past. Lesson: Visit old haunts and write the memories .

Because I’m writing this blog entry, I’m reviewing a memory that happened as recently as last night. So I can apply memory writing techniques to find out more about it. Namely, I ask, “What was the emotional power in the scene? What did people want from me? What did I want, hope, and fear?” The event contained the possibilities for new beginnings, of a connection with the Philadelphia cultural scene, with several fellow writers I met, and with the people associated with New Century, Mike Shoeman, president of Life Act Coaching, Marta Reis, and Ariel Schwartz. Culture is a strange and powerful beast. It wants to give and share, and to do those things it needs to create community. Artists, writers, performers, and everyone associated with culture are hungry to develop community. Lesson: You can meet people who want to meet you when you offer something to their culture.

So where would this evening go in my memoir? Is it the culmination of a lifetime process, or the beginning of the rest of my life? Of course the answer is both. Lesson: Life keeps generating memories, and I can gather these memories together into a story.